Even under their best-case scenarios, opponents of Utah’s inland port — which has been billed as the state’s largest-ever economic development project — say it will likely worsen air quality and damage the Great Salt Lake’s already fragile ecosystem.

Without an environmental impact study, it’s hard to say what, exactly, the effects could be of the planned 20,000-acre distribution hub in Salt Lake City’s westernmost area, which is expected to bring increased rail, truck and air traffic along with tailpipe emissions.

Advocates point out that, even without the port, the state has struggled to meet federal limits for ozone, an airborne pollutant that is particularly harmful to children. And it will likely miss a critical 2019 federal deadline for meeting air-quality standards.

“The inland port, I mean ... it doesn’t even exist right now, and we’re still having these challenges,” said Jessica Reimer, a policy associate with the nonprofit environmental advocacy group HEAL Utah.

That’s also without taking into consideration a projected boom of 1.5 million new people in the state by 2050 — which means more people driving cars and creating emissions.

“A lot of our emissions come from just our day to day, you know, just living our lives,” Reimer said. “And so we just don’t have a whole lot of room to fully increase the manufacturing and truck traffic that would potentially be generated from the inland port.”

The Salt Lake City skyline is obscured by dense fog as an inversion settles over the valley Tuesday Dec. 26, 2017. Authorities say dense fog and air pollution are combining to create hazardous conditions in the Salt Lake City area. (Steve Griffin/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Derek Miller, chairman of the inland port board, said he recognizes the “extreme importance to the community” of the project’s possible impacts on the environment. At a recent Salt Lake City Council meeting, nearly all of the 19 residents who spoke about the port raised those concerns. And most of the public comment at the board’s September meeting focused on those issues.

“The board is tasked with ensuring that this is done in not just an economic way but in an environmentally sensitive way,” Miller said. “And so we’re very eager to start getting some answers to the questions we all have.”

He estimated that those answers will come through an environmental impact study that’s four or five months out — aligning with the timeline for hiring an executive director.

The inland port has faced controversy and mistrust since its beginnings. Lawmakers unveiled and passed with little debate the bill creating the project late at night on the eve of the final day of the legislative session.

The legislation prompted criticism from Salt Lake City leaders, who viewed it as an inappropriate play for land and tax money. They spent the next several months working to find a compromise with the port’s supporters at the Capitol, which they did in a special session in July without Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s involvement.

The inland port board came under fire in August over a perceived lack of transparency for closing off to the public three subcommittee meetings.

With that history in mind, Biskupski says there’s been an air of secrecy around the state’s plans that makes her doubtful there’s the political will to prioritize environmental protection.

“Clearly there is a mission being driven behind the scenes that flies in the face of the values of this community,” Biskupski said. “And that means environmental protections. That means clean air. That means clean energy. You know, what is going to happen out there that they aren’t willing to share right now? And I think that secret is the most telling of all things that, whatever it is, it’s certainly not something that Salt Lake City would want.”

Location, location, location

The Great Salt Lake, one of Utah’s top landmarks, has shrunk to half its historic size since the pioneers arrived in 1847, according to researchers at Utah State University — and most of that decline can be attributed to human water use for industrial, agricultural and economic activities.

“The words that I keep hearing from people are these scary words like ‘tipping point,’ you know?” said Jaimi Butler, the coordinator of the Great Salt Lake Institute. “And you’re like, ‘What if we lose the Great Salt Lake?’”

In an ecosystem already thought to be on the brink, environmental advocates worry the massive inland port development could push it over the edge.

“[This] is really, I think, a disastrous location,” said Heather Dove, president of the Great Salt Lake Audubon, which advocates for wildlife conservation in the area. “Logistically it’s great, you know, with the highways and the rail and being near a major city and the air travel and so forth. That’s all great. But, environmentally, it’s terrible.”

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Small rock like structures formed by bacteria in the Great Salt Lake have become visible along the North shore of Antelope Island. Older structures dry up and collapse as the water recedes leaving dry domes. Known as microbialites, a few of the microbial mounds are being gathered and studied by researchers.

As the lake level declines, exposing more of its lake bed, there’s an increasing risk that toxic mineral dust will become airborne — creating yet another air quality problem.

Dove also worries about wildlife. The Great Salt Lake is a popular landing spot for vulnerable migratory bird populations that depend on the lake for survival, and she fears its continued decline could threaten them.

“I’ve heard the legislators go, ‘Oh, these are birds, they know how to fly; they’ll take care of themselves,’” Dove said. “But they don’t understand that many of these birds, especially the shorebirds, don’t have other places to go. They cannot go to a freshwater lake or river and find the sources of food that they eat. It’s a very specific kind of habitat that they need.”

Proponents of the port have said it will be an economic driver. But Dove cautions that no amount of money would be worth causing further damage to one of the state’s most important environmental and historic landmarks.

“We’re approaching a point of potentially no return,” she said. “If we don’t stop diverting water, if we don’t stop polluting the air, if we don’t stop cutting up and destroying habitats, it’s going to come to a point eventually where it won’t be a functioning ecosystem anymore.”

‘An idealistic goal’

Salt Lake City has pledged that its government will be powered by 50 percent renewable energy by 2020 and 100 percent by renewables communitywide by 2032. The city also plans to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2040 in an effort to combat poor air quality.

The city is on track to meet those goals, Biskupski said. As part of those efforts, city leaders have worked to build two net-zero fire stations and a net-zero police station — some of the first of their kind in the country. They’ve also put solar arrays on 11 government buildings and created a transit master plan that aims to get more people out of their cars and into bike lanes or on public transit.

Biskupksi worries that despite continued progress, the state’s development of the inland port could throw a wrench in attaining these goals.

“In the legislation, they try to act as if they’ll be environmentally friendly,” she said. “But, at the end of the day, there’s no commitments that really will protect our air. That’s a huge concern to us.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake CIty Mayor Jackie Biskupski speaks at the grand reopening celebration for Fairmont Park Pond, Wednesday, June 27, 2018.

City officials are in the process of passing regulations that would help fight negative health and environmental impacts from the port. Their proposed rules would prohibit refineries, require some businesses to conduct environmental impact assessments and regulate the storage and transfer of natural resources, such as coal.

At such an early phase in the project, city leaders and local advocates, including HEAL Utah, are also urging the port board to make sure the development is built right from the beginning.

They want to see net-zero buildings — which means they produce as much renewable energy as they consume — that are designed to prevent air leakages and heat loss with all-electric heat rather than gas. They also want the port to maximize the use of rail to minimize emissions, electrify all its on-site vehicles and cranes, set minimum requirements for transportation providers using the port, and set restrictions on idling in the area.

“We are advocating for implementing the technologies and processes that will make the inland port as clean as is feasibly possible,” said Reimer with HEAL Utah. “Recognizing that net zero is, you know, an idealistic goal and we would love it if we could get there, but short of that, implementing all that we can to get as close as we can.”

The board is considering building a net-zero port, Miller said, and members will also look at technology that exists now or on the horizon that could help make the port the cleanest and most efficient in the world.

“We’re excited about the prospect of building a clean port, utilizing all the technology that other ports are currently retrofitting with and that we get to start out with right out of the gate,” he said. “We’re going to have a tremendous product here at the end of the day. And we’re going to do it the right way.”